A year ago, during the two weeks surrounding New Year’s Day, the most-searched-for how-to question was how to get rid of stress, according to Google. Stress comes in many forms, and financial anxiety is one of them. Nearly 3 out of 4 Americans say they feel stressed about money at least some of the time, and 22 percent say they feel extreme stress about money, according to the American Psychological Association.
Financial mistakes — both real and imagined — tend to haunt us. Dwindling account balances, growing debt obligations and unopened financial statements carry more weight than they should, keeping us up at night and getting in the way of our well-being.
Action is the best cure for anxiety of any type, and financial stress is no exception. Reduce stress this year by setting at least one money-related goal, but make sure it’s achievable. “Goals work much better when they’re realistic and specific,” advised Dean Karlan, a professor of economics at Yale University and founder of the goal achievement website Stickk.
If you aren’t sure where to start, here are five suggestions.
1. Start investing for retirement. Young people have been shown to be good at saving, but investing is still a tough sell for many. Millennials are more likely to keep their retirement savings in cash, holding an average of 52 percent in that seemingly safe choice rather than in the stock market. But inflation steadily decreases the value of cash over time, which could spell trouble 30 years from now.
“Having a long-term allocation to equities is necessary for combating inflation in the future and making sure that you have enough money to buy the things you want when you are retired,” said iShares asset allocation strategist Jane Leung.
Even the oldest millennials, such as those who turned 35 years old in 2015, would have 90 percent of their retirement portfolio in the stock market and 10 percent in bonds if they plan to retire at 65, and would choose a target-date 2045 mutual fund such as the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund.
“If there’s anybody who needs to be piling money into equities, it’s millennials,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst. “Their life spans are longer, their healthcare costs are going to be higher, they have fewer pensions, and Social Security is more uncertain for them than for any of their predecessors. Not to mention the fact that they’ve got the most years still in the workforce,” he said.
Start the new year on the right foot by reviewing your 401(k) and IRA balances. If the money you’ve saved is sitting in a money market fund or other cash investment, move it into a growth-oriented option. Seek advice if you need it, or keep it simple with a target-date fund geared toward your expected retirement date.
2. Stop stressing about student loans. Few financial burdens receive more attention than student loan debt. But many experts say the focus does more harm than good, creating unnecessary stress and causing people to delay saving for retirement and other habits that establish a strong financial foundation.
“The average graduate with student loan debt has $30,000. A lot of people are going to spend close to that when they buy their first car, and when you get that car loan paid off, it’s a rust bucket and you have to do it all over again,” said McBride. “Whereas with student loans, nobody can ever take that education away from you,” he added.
Creating a payment plan and sticking with it is important for managing any debt, including student loans. But dwelling on the balance won’t make it disappear any faster. Let 2016 be the year you accept your student loans for what they are: an investment in future earning power. Automate your monthly payments, and then move on to other financial goals. “Contribute to your 401(k), build a sound financial base, take your time paying off those low-rate student loans,” said McBride.
3. Improve your credit score. Now that the economy is showing glimmers of strength, the Federal Reserve has started to raise interest rates. This will impact variable interest rates attached to credit cards, car loans, adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) and some student loans. Whether you’re paying off an established loan or hoping to take out a new one soon, having a pristine credit score will save you money in the long run.
Aggressively paying down high-interest debt, like credit card balances, will improve your score, but other actions can help as well. The Credit Karma credit score simulator allows you to see behind the curtain of how various choices impact your score.
“You can’t really optimize your credit score if you can’t get consistent feedback,” said Ken Lin, CEO and co-founder of Credit Karma. The simulator creates a soft inquiry, so it doesn’t show up on your credit report. It takes your current score and makes hypothetical changes to give you an estimate of what will happen if you follow through on those changes. “It’s very factual, very specific to the algorithm,” Lin said. The simulator can be used to figure out how to fix previous mistakes or avoid future missteps.
4. Negotiate a new job offer. A strengthening economy also means more promising employment options, so if you’ve been hoping to make a big career move, 2016 may be the right time. According to the Jobvite 2015 Job Seeker report, money is the most influential factor in leaving a job or choosing a new position. Sometimes jumping to a new company is the only way to significantly increase your salary, especially since wage growth has been relatively stagnant for a while.
“The reality is the job market seems to pretty good right now,” said Ann Owen, a professor of economics at Hamilton College. “The labor market is definitely improving, and especially for college-educated people the labor market is actually doing pretty well.”
Finding a new job takes time and effort, so commit to spending a few hours a week on the search until the right opportunity comes along. Social media is an important component for many job seekers, with 67 percent using Facebook to find a new job, and 40 percent using LinkedIn, according to Jobvite. Sharpen your negotiation skills before you receive an offer letter, since more disposable income means you’ll be better positioned to reach your other money-related objectives.
5. Buy less, do more. Heading into 2016, the most popular resolution is to enjoy life to the fullest, according to a survey from GoBankingRates. A growing body of research shows that spending money on experiences, rather than material goods, leads to greater happiness.
“People derive more satisfaction from their experiential purchases — vacations, meals out, tickets to events like concerts or the theater — than they do from their material purchases, things like clothing, jewelry, furniture and gadgets,” said Amit Kumar, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago.
This year, cut back on shopping for things you don’t really need, and instead save for a trip you’ve always wanted to take. Hold yourself accountable by including a friend or family member in the plan. “There are a lot of ways in which material goods interfere with our ability to connect with one another while experiences allow us to connect with each other,” said Kumar.
No matter what your financial priorities are for 2016, there’s no better time than now to start working toward your goals. Here’s to a happy — and prosperous — new year.